— Part 3 of a series —
As the season nears its end, Greene County’s Accent is sharing stories about some residents’ summer vacations.
Todd Smith and his wife, Rhajon, wanted to celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2018 with an overseas trip. With his interest in history in mind, they settled on a special destination — Normandy, France.
But, life got in the way of their plans, as the saying goes: Their schedules for 2018 ultimately didn’t allow an overseas trip.
The Greeneville City Administrator and his wife began to think about traveling this year instead. They were excited about the opportunity to visit Normandy in June, around the 75th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day.
Yet again, a schedule conflict thwarted their plans, as Smith learned that he would be participating in an Air Force National Guard training exercise at the time of the 75th commemoration.
The Smiths’ anniversary is in July, and it began to appear that they could make it to Europe around that time to celebrate. And so, with their daughter, Alethea, the three Smiths spent their 21st anniversary overseas on a trip of threes: three destinations, Normandy and Paris in France and Cologne, Germany, and three days in each.
Their first destination was Normandy. “It is a beautiful place,” Smith said. “It was very rural with rolling hills, very agricultural. It felt a bit like home.”
The people the Smiths met in Normandy were friendly and welcoming to visitors. “They still remember the Allied liberation during the war,” he said. “They are very thankful to Americans and the Allied forces for what happened on June 6, 1944.”
Visiting Omaha Beach and Utah Beach, where the Allied forces came ashore under intense bombardment from the Germans on D-Day, was a highlight of the trip for Smith.
“To put your eyes on what you have only read about in books is amazing,” he said. “Utah Beach, particularly, appears much as it did in 1944 and you can see where the German gun placements were and the craters made in the ground by the Navy shells. It was amazing to get to feel and touch that.”
The American cemetery in Normandy was a place that nurtured a reflective mood in visitors, Smith said. At the entrance of the cemetery is a visitors’ center that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. From that overlook, a small wall built into the beach can be seen, he said.
That wall stood in 1945 and soldiers crowded behind it for shielding from the barrage by the enemy. “You think about them deciding to go on up the beach and continue the fight to win the war,” Smith said. “It was one of those reflective moments. It make you think about what happened there and the sacrifices made.”
While his daughter is just 6, Smith hopes that she remembers what she was able to see and how special an opportunity to see such significant places as Normandy during the 75th anniversary of D-Day. “It is a once in a lifetime trip.”
As a history enthusiast, Smith found that Normandy held many treasures beyond the sites related to D-Day. “Every little town and small village contained so much history,” he said. “It was not uncommon to see something built in the Middle Ages still in use. In one town, we visited a cathedral built in the 1200s that is still in use. … It was unbelievable at times to be able to touch things over 1,000 years old.”
The area is rich in Medieval history, and the Smith found himself drawn to the cathedrals in each town. “People there take pride in their cathedrals and each were well maintained, regardless of the size,” he said.
WAR SITES IN GERMANY
A cathedral welcomed the Smiths at their next destination, Cologne, Germany.
“We rode the train to Germany,” he said. “When we left the train station, the first thing we saw was this massive cathedral.” That church, Cologne Cathedral, is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northeastern Europe.
The ornate cathedral was hosting a youth conference while the Smiths visited Cologne, and the family attended part of one of its worship services. “It was very cool to see their worship and hear the pipe organs in use,” he said.
For the history enthusiast, Cologne also held much interest for Smith. The family visited World War II sites such as a bridge over the Rhine River captured and destroyed by Allied forces as they made their way across the country, he said. The bridge has been rebuilt with the same appearance it had before the war.
Walking in Cologne, the Smiths began to notice small golden squares in certain places in sidewalks all over the city. The squares were inscribed in German. Smith said he knows a little of the language and was able to decipher that the squares were listing Jewish people’s names as former residents of a location adjacent to the sidewalk, their birth date and the date and place of their deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
While in Cologne, they traveled to visit the Heidelberg and its famous medieval castle. While there, they visited what is now a Lutheran Church but began as a Catholic cathedral. Smith said it was interesting to see the relatively plain interior of the church and evidence of the decorations that had been removed during the Reformation when it became a Protestant place of worship.
After their sojourn in Germany, the Smiths boarded another train to reach their next destination, Paris.
While they traveled by train throughout much of the trip, figuring out the subway system within Paris was challenging — but something they had gotten much better at than when they first arrived in Europe.
Smith explained they had taken a red-eye flight from the U.S. to Paris and were to take a train from there to Normandy. However, the sleepy family found they had to take a ride on the subway from the airport to reach the train station.
They located the right line and made their train in time, only to reach Normandy to the challenge of how to navigate the ticket system to exit the train station.
“I kept trying to put my ticket in and it wouldn’t work, so we went to the side to see how others were doing it, and finally figured it out,” he said.
A huge city, Smith said the challenge was deciding what to see in Paris. They did visit such famous sites as the Eiffel Tour and the Louvre. It was exciting to see art from ancient Egypt an Greece as well as masterpieces throughout European history at the Louvre, he said.
The Smiths went by Notre Dame Cathedral, which was blocked off to visitors while it undergoes repairs following a fire earlier in the summer.
However, Smith discovered a 13th century cathedral, the Church of Sainte-Chappelle, which was constructed to house what was believed to be Jesus’ crown of thorns at the time.
“It is not a huge church, but it is filled with beautiful stain glass windows,” he said. “They were spectacular as the light shining through them.”
The Smiths also ventured outside of Paris to visit the small town of Chartes, home of another famous Gothic cathedral. Smith noted that while he spent a lot of time taking in the cathedrals, his wife decided at times to visit the local shops.
Throughout their trip, the Smiths made an effort try the local foods of the area they were visiting. Smith said his wife enjoyed the pastries in France and they all enjoyed the bread and cheese. In Germany, he said, they were able to enjoy bratwurst and schnitzel.